James Lockton, the Duke of Marchford, was a marked man. He heard voices coming and pressed himself against the wall, edging slowly away, careful not to make a sound. One wrong move would seal his fate.
He had tried to escape his doom, hiding at his country estate like a craven coward. It was only the pressing needs of king and country, and the early opening of Parliament to deal with a severe crisis of governance, that drew him back to London. He had hoped December would find Town desolate of company, but with the return of the members of Parliament came their families, and with their families came…
“The Duke of Marchford is sooooo handsome,” cooed a young feminine voice.
“Better yet, he’s dreadfully rich,” said another lady. “What I wouldn’t give to be duchess of this hall.”
“Do you think we should be wandering about, Mama?”
“No, of course not, but do you think we should come all this way without an introduction to the duke? Do you really think I care a whit about that spiteful old dowager? No!” exclaimed the baroness. They were growing nearer.
Marchford knew the baroness and her daughters were coming to visit his grandmother, but he hardly expected them to make a search of the house. He darted up a servants’ stairwell and into a long hallway of bedrooms. He walked quickly toward the main stairs but stopped short at the sound of their whining voices. The woman had the audacity to come up to the private rooms! If they cornered him in the hallway, there would be no way to politely avoid introductions, and then he would be forced to dance with one or both of the sour-faced girls. He could think of no worse fate.
“We’ll flush out the duke,” crooned the baroness, her voice growing louder, “say we got turned around in the house and secure an introduction. I swear I’ll not set foot from this place until you both have been asked to dance at tonight’s ball.”
Nothing to do but run.
He spun and dashed down the hall on light feet. Taking a risk, he opened one of the doors and slipped inside, closing the door carefully to avoid the conspicuous click of the latch. Now if only the bedroom were empty, he could possibly survive the night.
A small, feminine shriek behind him laid waste to that grand hope.
“Your Grace!” demanded Penelope Rose. “What on earth are you doing in my bedroom?”
“Shhhh, I beg you, Miss Rose,” whispered Marchford, relieved it was only his grandmother’s companion and not one of those marriage-minded females. “I am glad it is only you. You gave me a fright.”
“I gave you a fright!” Penelope wrapped a serviceable robe around an already modest dressing gown.
Penelope Rose was the companion to his grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Marchford, and was the only one in a series of companions who had lasted more than a week. She stood with her hands on her slender hips, and her long brown hair, which was usually pulled back in something of a severe knot, tumbled down around her.
Marchford gave Penelope a cursory glance, then looked back once more. He had never seen her with her hair undone, and the transformation was remarkable. Her hair was a lovely shade of chestnut brown and fell in loose waves all the way to her waist. It was luscious and thick and he had the sudden impulse to touch it. She had worked as his grandmother’s companion for almost a year, but he doubted he had ever truly seen her before this moment.
“I am dressing for dinner. You must leave at once!” Penelope glared at him. He may have been experiencing an epiphany regarding her true form, but the only thing he saw in her large brown eyes was irritation.
“Forgive me, Miss Rose. I would not intrude on your privacy if it were not a matter of desperate urgency.”
“What is it?” Pen’s tone changed instantly. “Is it the spymaster?”
Penelope was one of the very few people he trusted to assist him with his work for the Foreign Office. He was slow to trust, but she had proved her worth, helping him flush out French spies who had infiltrated English society. It was one of the many things he valued about her. Yet in this case, his distress was of a more personal nature. “Worse. The baroness and her daughters.”
Pen raised an eyebrow. “You are intruding on my privacy to avoid forming a new acquaintance?” Ironically, her attempt to chastise only enhanced her growing appeal.
“Have you met her daughters?” he defended, all thoughts of any other lady, save the one before him, banished from his mind.
“Would you like to spend an hour dancing with either of them?”
Penelope’s lively face struggled to maintain her general reserve until she gave up and rolled her eyes at him. “I suppose I must concede the point.”
“Besides, should you not be with my grandmother during their visit?” He stepped toward her, sensing he was gaining the advantage.
“Sudden headache,” she said quickly, on the defense. She sat on the trunk by the foot of her bed.
“Couldn’t stand them either, eh? And now, because you failed to keep them entertained, they are running amok in my house.” Marchford claimed a chair by her dressing table and stretched out his long legs; he was sitting in her private boudoir and enjoying every minute of it.
“Do not make yourself comfortable. You cannot stay here. It is highly improper!” She put her hands on her hips.
She was right, of course, he had no business being in her room, but he was finally seeing Miss Penelope Rose in a more natural state, and he had no interest in making a hasty departure. “I certainly can’t leave, not with them about.”
“You best get accustomed to female attention. After all, you are unmarried, young, and a duke.” Penelope listed his attributes as though they were an indictment against him.
“If I cannot even be safe in my own home, entering the London season a targeted bachelor…” He made a strangled sound. “Why, my life will not be worth living. I must find a wife. And soon,” he added gloomily.
“Ah, the horror of it all.” Pen clasped her hands to her breast in mock sympathy. She was teasing him, but he enjoyed it. How many others would dare to mock the Duke of Marchford? Only the adorably frumpy woman before him.
Marchford ignored her sarcasm. “I need at least a fiancée, someone who will not plague me. Someone who does not whine or cry or do other feminishy things.”
“Feminishy?” Penelope raised an eyebrow.
“Someone sensible. Someone who can stand up to my grandmother without causing a scene. Someone like…” Marchford met Pen’s eyes. Her ancient dressing gown looked every bit the wardrobe of an old maid, but her hair…that beautiful hair. Why did she tie it up in a lump on the back of her head? What other charms might her old clothes be hiding? Marchford guessed her ill-fitting clothes hid a shapely body, and those expressive brown eyes revealed intelligence and humor.
“Someone like you,” said Marchford. It was meant only as a joke, and yet as the idea turned around in his mind, it became more desirable. Becoming engaged to Penelope would solve his problem of being hunted as a bachelor, and they could continue working together to catch spies, and… he suddenly had a great desire to unwrap the rest of the questionable package before him to see what delights lay underneath the hideous dressing gown. “What do you think? It would get me out of a jam.”
Penelope’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. He had surprised her if nothing else. In a blink, her reserve returned to her face. “I beg you would not speak such nonsense.”
“I am in earnest. You are a sensible girl. You get along with my grandmother. You can hold intelligent conversation. You are…sensible.”
“You said sensible.”
“It is one of your better features.”
Penelope’s eyebrows lowered. “I thank you for that unmitigated praise.”
“Miss Rose, will you or will you not consent to be my wife?”